This year’s Wild Development Camp brings together more than 40 players from five different countries. The players’ ages range from 17 to 24. Some have played up to three years of professional hockey, while others are fresh out of the Minnesota State High School League. Many are total strangers.
But in the wide mix of ages, languages and experiences, three Swedes quickly gravitated towards each other on the first day of camp.
Tuesday morning, the first on-ice session at this year’s camp, was far from the first time Johan Gustafsson, Jonas Brodin and Johan Larsson donned matching sweaters. While they all play for different pro clubs back home, the three have suited up alongside one another in Team Sweden’s yellow and blue on several occasions, going back to Under-16 play.
In all the experiences the trio has shared together, winning gold at this year’s IIHF World Junior Championship, which took place in Calgary and Edmonton, Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, is likely their favorite.
Larsson served as team captain as Sweden won its first World Juniors gold medal since 1981. He put up a team-high six assists, while Brodin added four of his own.
“It meant a lot to win for the country I grew up in,” Gustafsson said of the tournament. “It was a dream come true.”
Larsson said he and his teammates have come close to claiming gold medals for Team Sweden in the past. Finally earning one was a huge reward.
“It was unbelievable,” the forward proclaimed.
Gustafsson said playing with Larsson and Brodin has helped make the three good friends over the years, and that helps make training camp a little easier.
“It might be harder to be here alone,” Gustafsson said.
The golden goaltender added having other Swedes around makes St. Paul feel a little closer to home, saying, “It’s nice for all of us to be here together.”
While all the Swedes at this year’s camp know enough English to get by, Brodin said the foreign language still brings challenges, “It’s nice having these guys from Sweden I can really talk with.”
But of course there’s more to training camp than seeing old friends.
While the three agree it’s fun going through camp alongside a few others who share their native tongue, having fellow Swedes in the locker room doesn’t relieve much of the pressure when they hit the ice.
“We all know we have to succeed here individually,” Gustafsson said.
Individual success is no foreign concept to the trio, who each boast long lists of personal accomplishments.
Gustafsson, who the Wild drafted in the sixth round in 2010, garnered international attention for earning a shutout in the championship matchup against Russia as he backstopped Sweden to its World Juniors gold. He would go on to finish fifth in the Swedish Elite League (SEL) with a .932 save percentage and second with a 1.68 goals against average.
Larsson, a second-round pick in 2010, finished third in scoring on Brynas of the SEL last season and was named the SEL Rookie of the Year after helping his team claim the league title. His big season helped him be chosen to represent Team Sweden at the IIHF World Championships, which took place in Helsinki and Stockholm in May.
Brodin, the Wild’s first pick (10th overall) in 2011, also earned a spot on Sweden’s World Championships roster after a standout season.
The two explained that playing on that enormous stage, alongside countless NHL mainstays, was both an honor and a steppingstone in their development.
“It’s great to be able to play with those guys,” Larsson said. “I’m so young, so I can learn from it. You see what it takes to reach the next level.”
Seeing what it takes to make it in the NHL is something the trio will continue to learn throughout the course of training camp. They, along with the other Wild prospects, including another fellow Swede Daniel Gunnarsson, who the Wild selected in this year’s NHL Entry Draft, have their work cut out for them this week. The intense on-ice and strength training sessions continue today and run through the weekend.
"I hope to learn something everyday here," Brodin added. "It's good to learn the language and meet (other) guys, too."
While each Wild prospect will be pushed to his limit this week, for the three Swedes, it’s nice knowing they’re in it together.